Dorian Corey was a black, transgender drag queen and dressmaker who was living in Harlem when she died from AIDS in 1993. She was, by most (if not all) accounts, a witty, unflappable, caring woman who took her role as a veteran drag queen and mentor in the community seriously. In the Harlem drag ball scene she was a diva, the matriarch of her drag family, the House of Corey. On a 1991 episode of The Joan Rivers Show, she explained that “you lend money to your friends – not very much money – and give advice…Sometimes, if someone got evicted or whatever, you might take them in.”
Corey was a graduate of the Parsons School of Design who appeared self-possessed and world-weary, qualities that endeared her to a more mainstream audience, but the truth of the matter is that she was a marginalized black woman living in a dangerous world…which maybe makes what her friends discovered rotting in her closet seem like less of a shock.
In October of 1993, just a few months after Corey’s death, friend and fellow drag queen Lois Taylor was in Corey’s apartment looking for costumes that could be recycled or handed down when she noticed a heavy bag lying on the floor of the closet. It was too heavy to move, so she and a couple other people sliced the bag open with scissors.
Inside layers of fabric, Naugahyde, faux leather, and plastic, they found a decomposing body. They immediately called the police.
The body, miraculously identified through fingerprints as Robert “Bobby” Worley (aka Robert Wells), was partially mummified and curled into the fetal position. His skin had turned a mottled purple and yellow, his clothes were tattered, and most telling, a bullet hole was found in his head.
Worley was a criminal who had been arrested for raping and assaulting a woman in 1963, but had not been heard from since serving a 3-year jail sentence. That fact, combined with the discovery of beer can pull-tabs wrapped with his body that dated back to the 1960s and ’70s, led detectives to conclude that the shooting probably took place at least 20 years prior to the discovery of the body.
Originally it was thought that Corey might have taken the body in order to protect one of her “family” members, though that theory fell out of favor some time ago. After that, it was thought that Worley, a known criminal, must have broken in and tried to rob the drag queen and dressmaker, who shot him in self-defense. She lived in a dangerous neighborhood, after all, and it’s a fair assumption that she owned a gun for the purpose of protecting herself.
Once evidence surfaced that Worley and Corey were engaged in a romantic relationship, however, it became clear that Corey’s reasons for pulling the trigger might be more complex. According to Lois Taylor (who discovered the body), Corey wrote a short story about a transgender woman who killed her lover, and in hindsight, the tale seems like it could be autobiographical, as it’s littered with facts from her real life.
There’s more, too.
A friend says that Corey confessed to the murder during a drug haze while in the hospital in her final days, and allegedly there’s a police interview with Worley’s brother that states that Robert “showed up one night drunk, and he was going on and on and on about Dorian,” proving that he and Corey had a relationship.
How did she get away with it, though? And why hide the body instead of getting rid of it?
It turns out the answers to both of those questions are pretty simple, if you use knowledge of the lifestyle, the time, and common sense.
Richard Mailman, author of the upcoming stage play Dorian’s Closet, has a few ideas about what happened, and how it turned out the way that it did:
“Being in a relationship with someone who was abusive would make sense, especially when you’re talking about when men are attracted to trans people. My sense is that we’re talking about someone who might be closeted about their homosexuality as well, so there might have been all kinds of hatred and internalized oppression. My sense of it is that it was a dangerous situation that Dorian needed to get out of.”
In other words, their relationship became toxic, maybe violent, and Dorian felt as if she had no choice. But that didn’t mean she could simply go to the police, as Mailman posits here:
“I don’t think she had a criminal mind. She didn’t plan the murder, and when it happened, she had to think fast. In the mind of someone who commits a crime of passion, that kind of makes sense.”
Not to mention that dragging a body through the congested streets of New York would have presented a set of problems all on its own. It makes sense, like he says, that she would have done her best to neutralize the odor and other lovely effects of decomposition, shove it in a closet, and do her best to forget it was there.
Since Worley was a criminal estranged from his family, there was no one to come looking for him when he disappeared – a sad fact that certainly worked in Corey’s favor, as well.
Perhaps it’s not so surprising, though, that a woman who was part of a highly marginalized world managed to commit murder and never answer questions about it during her lifetime. With stage plays and other performance pieces dedicated to the mystery of her life, though, Dorian Corey has managed to leave a mark on her little piece of the world. Which, according to an interview she did for the documentary film Paris is Burning, she might not have minded.
“Everybody wants to make an impression, some mark upon the world. Then you think, you’ve made a mark on the world if you just get through it, and a few people remember your name. If you shoot an arrow and it goes real high, hooray for you.”
She may never have expected to be remembered for what was discovered in her closet after her death. But maybe she would simply be happy to be remembered at all, for you cannot tell the story of what happened after she died without telling the story of her life – which is the story of others like her, and it immortalizes their way of life for all time.
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h/t: Atlas Obscura